Since Harvey Milk’s assassination in the fall of 1978, the United States has seen a monumental progression in both freedom (civil liberties) and equality (civil rights) for minority groups that have endured longstanding oppression. The year 1981 saw President Ronald Reagan appoint the first female Supreme Court justice, a move challenging the age-old social perception of a woman’s role in society. Minority religious groups soon followed suit, as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 countered the imposition of religion and ensured free exercise for minority religious groups. The year 2008 perhaps marked the culmination of the long fight for civil rights in the United States, as a black man became the most powerful man in the country.
The manner in which minority groups have sought after and claimed their constitutionally endowed rights in contemporary times is indeed remarkable. Americans, dare I say, have perhaps finally found protection from the “tyranny of the majority” about which the Founding Fathers so earnestly warned them.
Rather surprisingly, however, one particular minority group – homosexual, bisexual, and transgender individuals – has been decidedly and frustratingly unsuccessful in its endeavour to attain equal treatment afforded the majority group of heterosexual Americans. Though numerous LGBT activists reference the 14th Amendment and the “Equal Protection” clause in their fight for equality, I would contend that the denial of marriage equality is in fact a fundamental violation of one’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion. According to minorityrights.org, the rapid spread of evangelical Christianity (arguably the preeminent opponent of same-sex marriage) in recent times has “troubled” advocates of religious freedom, who warn against the politicization of religion and compulsive compliance with Christian values.
I must have overlooked the scripture passage in which God commanded Christians to lawfully impose biblical values upon non-consenting, non-Christian individuals.
It is easy to preach the “sanctity of marriage” and devotedly live by “traditional values” when it is simply the rights of a minority group at stake, with whom the majority could never identify. The fact of the matter is that if conservative-minded individuals truly wanted to keep the institution of marriage “sacred” as defined by the Bible, they would similarly seek to outlaw divorce (Mark 10:2-12), sex outside of marriage (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4), and cheating on a spouse (Hebrews 13:4). In fact, in this theocratic utopia sought by the religious right, a married man so much as even looking at another woman would be unlawful (Matthew 5:27-28).
Indeed, it is the height of hypocrisy when a conservative spokesperson, after multiple divorces and remarriages, claims that same-sex couples should be denied an equal right to marry, citing the “preservation of the sacred institution of marriage” as justification for their discrimination (see: Rush Limbaugh). However, the heterosexual majority in our wonderful democracy enjoys a perpetual domination of the American legislative process. Hence, they would never allow a law that would inconvenience them to such a degree and deny their basic rights as Americans. They will likely just continue to compel an unwilling minority group to live by the very moral standards and religious values by which they claim to live, yet overtly neglect each day.
Thus, the distinction between the legal and spiritual implications of marriage (a simple concept) is no doubt imperative in ensuring the freedom of American citizens. Simply put, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment allows me the right to not obey the Christian standard of marriage. Similarly, the Establishment Clause denies you the right to codify the Christian standard of marriage into law in the first place. You can’t lawfully force people to live by your religious values, and you can’t deny people equal treatment under law simply because they don’t follow your religious beliefs. It’s – wait for it – unconstitutional.
So would Harvey Milk be proud of today’s LGBT movement? Sure, he would be proud. He would be proud that gay activists have persevered through the plight of religious dogma that has visibly taken its toll on rationality in congressional legislation. He would be proud that same-sex couples have remained largely hopeful and faithful while debating within a hopelessly stagnant bipartisan framework.
Most importantly, however, he would be shocked. Milk would be understandably astounded that the issue of basic freedom and equal treatment for United States citizens is still up for debate.